There are three age systems in Indian history: the idea that there was an age of stone tools, followed by one dominated by those of bronze, and then of iron. The first one is India’s Stone Age. The Indian Stone Age is divided into the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods. The Paleolithic age dates back approximately 2 million years ago to 10,000 years ago and is further divided into three phases: the Lower Paleolithic age, the Middle Paleolithic Age, and the Upper Paleolithic Age.
The Lower Paleolithic Age
Paleolithic tools have been found in almost all parts of the subcontinent. The Lower Paleolithic Age, with a timeframe of about 2 million years ago to 100,000 years ago, has few sites discovered in alluvial stretches of the Indus or Ganga valleys (Kalpi in Uttar Pradesh being an exception). Early Paleolithic tools were relatively large core tools made of quartzite or other hard rocks. They included chopping tools, hand axes, and cleavers. In addition to directly breaking off pieces of stone from large boulders, which would have required considerable strength, it is possible that people lit fires against rocks and threw water above them, causing large fragments to break off more easily.
In recent years, important evidence for Lower Paleolithic contexts has emerged from the Potwar Plateau and the Siwaliks. At Dina and Jalalpur, fifteen artifacts were discovered, including freehand axes. In 1956, four Lower Paleolithic stone tools were found near the main gate of Delhi University, and a late Acheulian hand axe was discovered on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Excavations at Anangpur in the Badarpur hills revealed traces of several paleo-channels, indicating a large Lower Paleolithic habitation and factory sites. The Mogra hills near Jodhpur also served as a factory site.
Various parks in Central India have yielded prehistoric remains. Excavations at Adamgarh hills revealed a sequence of Lower and Middle Paleolithic tools. The most remarkable discoveries come from the Bhimbetka rock shelters, which have provided evidence of an extensive and long-lasting occupation. In Bihar, a Lower Paleolithic living and working floor was discovered at Paisra in Munger. The area was rich in finished and unfinished artifacts, broken stone pieces, and anvils. Islampur in Gulbarga district, Karnataka, offered water and a variety of wild animal and plant food sources that were available to prehistoric humans. Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu revealed a sequence of Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic cultures, with a break in occupation following the Middle Paleolithic phase.
Within the Paleolithic period, there were gradual changes in stone tools. Hand axes, chopping tools, and cleavers did not completely disappear, but there was a shift towards smaller, lighter flake tools. Some of these tools were made using core techniques, including the Levallois technique. The Middle Paleolithic period spanned from approximately 100,000 to 40,000 years ago.
In the northwest, Middle Paleolithic stone tools were found in the Potwar Plateau between the Indus and Thelum rivers. Sanghao cave revealed a sequence of Middle Paleolithic occupations, with thousands of stone tools found along with animal bones and hearths. In the Thar region, Middle Paleolithic artifacts were discovered in reddish-brown soil, indicating a more abundant vegetation, increased surface area, and a cooler, wetter, and more humid climate. Small factory sites have been found in various parts of the Thar, and Middle Paleolithic tools have also been found in Ajmer.
Evidence of Middle Paleolithic working floors has been discovered at Hokra and Baridhani. The Middle Paleolithic industry of Central and Peninsular India is sometimes referred to as the Nevasation industry, named after the site of Nevasa. Tools from this period were made from smooth, fine-grained stones such as agate, jasper, and chalcedony. Evidence of Middle Paleolithic living and factory sites has been found at Chikri near Nevasa. The earliest trace of human occupation in the Ganga plain is found in Kalpi.
The Upper Paleolithic Age spanned from approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. One important technological advancement during this period was the production of parallel-sided blades. There was also an increase in the number of burins, a type of tool used for engraving or carving. Tools from this period included blades, backed blades, burins, pointed blades, end scrapers, double borer blades, Levallois points, and more.
In the northeast, Sanghae cave has provided evidence of Upper Paleolithic tools, hearths, and animal bones. Chopani Mando in the Belan Valley appears to be a habitation site with a cultural sequence ranging from the Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic. There are numerous Upper Paleolithic sites in the Chotanagpur region of West Bengal. In the Howrah and Khowai river valleys and western Tripura, a number of burins, points, and types of blades have been found. In Kurnool and Muchchatta in Andhra Pradesh, a significant number of tools have been discovered, and notably, these tools are made of animal bones. Upper Paleolithic artifacts were also found in a cave in Renigunta in the Chittoor district of southern Andhra Pradesh. Stone tools from this phase have also been found in various locations in India, with their antiquity ranging between 25,000 and 10,000 years ago.
The lifeways of Paleolithic people living in different parts of the subcontinent were based on their adaptation to their specific environments. They were primarily hunters and gatherers, relying on hunting animals and gathering food from the natural environment. The social structure of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers may have resembled a “band society” in some ways, with a division of labor among males and females, although specific details are not well-known.
The Paleolithic period marks an important beginning in the history of art. It provides a window into the world of prehistoric people and their artistic expressions. At Bhimbetka, circular discs made of chalcedony from the Upper Paleolithic period and soft sandstone discs from Maihar (southwest of Allahabad) were found in Acheulian contexts, suggesting early forms of artistic creation.
Baghor-I in Madhya Pradesh has fascinating evidence of an Upper Paleolithic shrine, indicating the presence of ritual or ceremonial activities. In Pune, Maharashtra, an ostrich eggshell with criss-cross patterns was discovered, providing intriguing insights into the symbolic expressions of Paleolithic cultures.
It is important to note that the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers of the subcontinent cannot be directly compared to modern hunter-gatherer societies found in Africa and other parts of the world. Their cultures were distinct and shaped by their specific environments and resources. However, by studying the culture of modern hunting-gathering societies, we can gain some insights and imagine aspects of Paleolithic culture, allowing us to connect with our ancient ancestors in a meaningful way.